Thursday, April 22, 2010

The NFL Draft: A Celebration of the Restraint of Trade

The NFL Draft: A Celebration of the Restraint of Trade
By Evan Weiner - The Daily Caller 04/22/10 at 1:43 PM

(New York, N. Y.) -- Sometime after 7:00 EST on Thursday night, the celebration of something totally un-American, a restraint of trade, will start when the National Football League’s St. Louis Rams announce which player they want as the first pick in the annual NFL Draft.

Corporate America, everyday Americans and Sunday afternoon couch potatoes celebrate the NFL Draft. It is an off-season party for football fans. Once the season ends, the NFL’s worst team is “on the clock,” and a more than four-month long publicity blitz starts with the league’s worst team in the spotlight, as the talent evaluators from that franchise rate the best college talent ready to join the workforce.

It all culminates in the big party in New York, “The Draft,” a celebration of the stopping of the free market. But it’s all part of the sports package.

Normally, the best 225 college graduates can talk to a number of companies and businesses looking for their services and shop around for a job, but that is not the case for the most talented people coming out of college. The flip side is that the best 225 can look forward to making anywhere in a range of hundreds of thousands of dollars to millions annually during the life of the contract they sign. But the contracts are not guaranteed, and the freshly out-of-college players may end up with a really nice bonus, sometimes in the millions. But if they are cut or fired, they will have to look for another job in a relatively closed field with less than 1,900 positions, many of which have already been taken.

The odds of landing a full-time job in the NFL are slim for a good many of those whose names will be called on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, even if they are the top 225.

The NFL Draft is an accepted part of American life (as are the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball and National Hockey League drafts). But no one ever really questions the mechanism. In a few weeks, the non-football members of the class of 2010 will hit the streets looking for jobs. The graduates will be able to look for positions wherever they want, whether it is in Seattle, Washington or Dallas, Texas or Miami, Florida or down the northeast I-95 corridor from Foxboro, Massachusetts to East Rutherford, New Jersey to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Baltimore, Maryland and Washington, D. C.

They can apply for jobs and go for interviews and hope they get an opportunity and possibly leverage the offers. College football players have a slightly different entry into their profession. NFL teams begin scouting players as soon as they hit college campuses, although they know about the players from high school.

NFL personnel people watch them for at least three years (the NFL requires players to play college football for three years and be on a college campus; whether the individual goes to classes or not is immaterial, despite the presence of the Wonderlic test, which allegedly measures a players intelligence). The college football games are the SATs for NFL scouts. But there are other factors that go into deciding whether the individual coming out of college is good enough. The players go to what is called a scouting combine in Indianapolis in the final semester of their four or five year college career for interviews and to see what the player looks like in a t-shirt and shorts. The players also run a variety of sprints.

Then a team makes a decision and puts names on a list. Only 225 or so get drafted. The 230th-rated player has more bargaining power than the last few players taken in the draft. There are some really good players who aren’t drafted, and they can shop around their services and get more money than, say, the “Lowsman Trophy” winner, the last player taken in the grab bag. The NFL slots money for each pick, but the players in the upper echelon of the draft can negotiate a higher bonus, the money they can keep if there are fired.

Very few players can beat the system and play where they want. John Elway wanted no part of playing in Baltimore in 1983 and signed a contract with the New York Yankees to play baseball and used that as leverage to get his way and forced a trade to Denver. Bo Jackson decided to play baseball instead of signing with Tampa Bay in 1986. Jackson would eventually play football for the Los Angeles Raiders after the Major League Baseball season ended. Eli Manning didn’t want to play for the San Diego Chargers even though he was the NFL and the Chargers’ first pick in the 2004 draft and was immediately traded to the New York Giants.

There are just a few players who can work the system.

The “free-agents” or non-drafted players carry a stigma, though. They are “free-agents” and they have to work harder to get a permanent job. Just because a player is drafted, that doesn’t guarantee a permanent position.

The National Football League is what one-time NFL quarterback and the 1996 Republican Vice-President candidate Jack Kemp once called, “the gold standard” in the industry. There are other football businesses, the United Football League, the Canadian Football League and various indoor football leagues but, and this is meant with no disrespect, for football players getting out of college, that is like working at a fast food restaurant.

It is a job, but not the job they want. The UFL, CFL and other leagues might give some players a second opportunity,but NFL teams know within three to four weeks of the opening of training camp how many of the top 225 are legitimate employees. The NFL personnel guys make very few mistakes; the vetting process is pretty good. Most of the 225 won’t have a career that lasts more than three years.

The NFL Draft is a legally sanctioned restriction of the free market, as it is collectively bargained between the NFL owners and the National Football League Players Association. The draft is a celebration for football fans, Christmas in April, as each NFL team selects players that are gift-wrapped for the fans of each of the 32 teams and come with the promise of making the team perform better.

The actual draft in New York is a rather boring affair. The NFL jazzes up the proceedings with smoke and mirrors, literally, as there are video presentations and loud music while fans dress in their “Sunday” (most NFL games are played on Sunday) best complete with the colors of their favorite teams, uniforms and face paint. But the actual selection of players is a boring and tedious process with a lot of wasted time as NFL personnel directors, coaches and general managers’ fight with scouts in a “war-room” at the team’s headquarters scattered around the country. They call into league headquarters the name of the player they want.

On Thursday night, the heavily choreographed NFL Draft kicks off with a big “tailgate” party inside Radio City Music Hall on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan. Of course, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is not going to close off a major artery like Sixth Avenue, so the festivities have to take place inside. ESPN, with more people on camera than were available for either the Democratic or Republican Party national conventions, is capturing every nuance of the crowd as the talking heads assess the gravity of the situation. The NFL Network, also armed with an array of experts, provides another point of view although it is virtually the same as ESPN, just with different talking heads.

As the revelers revel, their thoughts will turn to the St. Louis Rams. Will Sam Bradford, the Oklahoma quarterback or will Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh get the call? National Football League Commissioner will make his appearance; there will be a hush over the crowd. Bradford or Suh? Or will it be someone else?

It is high drama at the old building in midtown Manhattan.

Eventually the hometown Giants and Jets will get their chance. Giants fans booed the selection of quarterback Phil Simms in 1979. And then there’s the “J-E-T-S, Jets, Jets, Jets” chant that waffles through the building.

The three day affair leads to rookie mini-camp, which features the lower round picks and players looking to just get a chance to get onto the 80-man training camp roster as the top picks skip the sessions because they haven’t signed a contract. Then there will be the training camp “holdouts” with some rookies haggling for better signing bonus, and eventually the players gear up for a 16 game season.

But that takes place after the best three days of the off-season for the fans. The celebration of an illegal restraint of trade, made legal by two parties (the owners and players) with no relationship to the injured party (the incoming college grads, well not grads except they graduate the football system either after three, four or five years). Football celebrates a system that is really un-American — but no one really seems to care or notice.

After all, it’s only football.

Evan Weiner is a radio-TV commentator, columnist, author and lecturer on “The Politics of Sports Business” and can be reached at

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